Forest bathing: Shinrin-Yoku in Minneapolis

Let me ask you a question: Are you stressed? If you’re like most Americans, you probably answered with a resounding “YES!”

According to an April 2012 study by the American Psychological Association, job pressure is the number one cause of stress in the United States.  

Seventy-seven percent of people surveyed said they regularly experience physical symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, upset stomachs and muscle tension caused by stress; and 73 percent cited stress as the trigger for psychological symptoms such as irritability or anger, nervousness or lack of energy.

This continued pressure over weeks, months and years causes over 50 percent of the respondents to fight with people close to them, and nearly half to report a negative impact on their personal and professional lives.  This costs employers approximately $300 billion annually on stress-related health care or missed work.

Let me ask you another question: Why do we do this to ourselves? And how can we alleviate these seemingly endless sources of anxiety?

I think everyone reading this can point to a memory or experience where you felt calmed and in awe of the natural beauty surrounding you. We are in Minnesota, after all, where opportunities for exposure to the power of the landscape are many — even in the urban core. Take a moment to reflect, close your eyes and immerse yourself in that memory. Most likely, there’s a smile on your face, and your heart rate probably dipped lower.  

Why? Much research has been done on the healing effects of forests, landscapes and green space. Numerous studies point to hospital patients that need less medicine and have quicker recovery times because they have a view of trees out their window. Researchers at the Center for Environment, Health & Field Sciences at Chiba University, as well as their colleagues at the Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute in Ibaraki, Japan think that it is evolution. Because throughout our evolution we existed within and as a partner with nature — we are comfortable and feel a symbiosis with it. By contrast, our modern “artificial” society is inherently stressful.

According to these researchers, “Shinrin-yoku” (literally “surrounding yourself with forest air”) is considered to be one of the best ways to get in touch with the natural world and to lower stress levels.

Many factors contribute to the stress reduction of forest bathers — the visual stimulation of lush greens, tactility of the surroundings, sounds and smell. Fascinatingly — smell is one of the strongest triggers out of all the senses. It ties directly to things like instinct and emotion. Why do you think we wear fragrances?  

The forest certainly has a distinctly pleasant smell, as any of us who have been hiking after a rain or at the peak of fall color can attest to. Smell has helped Alzheimer’s patients recollect events from their past; and research demonstrates that just having participants smell cedar wood decreased blood pressure, improved comfort and produced a relaxed state.

All of these helpful physical attributes were found to occur with as little as 20 minutes spent walking in the forest.

So if you’re an urban dweller like me, where can you do some forest bathing of your own? My favorite gem for true forest bathing just outside of downtown Minneapolis is the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden, which I rediscovered with the gentle nudging of my wife.

Tucked away in Theodore Wirth Park, it is truly an inner-city getaway.  Once you step though the rustic gates you are swept into another world of birdsong and dappled light, meadows and woodlands anchored by majestic oaks and prairie grasses. It is a magical place that takes, oddly, about 20 minutes to cover some good ground — a bit longer if you have the time to absorb its healing attributes. Thankfully, the Minneapolis Park Board listened to the petitions by Minneapolis botanist Eloise Butler back in 1907 and added the 15-acre parcel to their collection of parkland. It is the oldest public wildflower garden in the nation.  

There are many other spots tucked across the city as well because landscape architects like Horace Cleveland and civic leaders of yore had the foresight to create the Grand Rounds right here within the city limits. Yet with all this rich and pleasant greenery, a challenge still lies before us — the heart of our central business district. Where’s the green? How can we achieve a downtown walking experience that boasts a green canopy on every block?  There are efforts afoot by the Minneapolis Downtown Council’s Greening and Public Realm committee and Trust for Public Land right now to do just that.

As many did before, the present generation of landscape architects right here in Minneapolis can play a catalytic role in advancing and implementing these ideas. Our expertise allows us to help create standards for how we can plant street trees that not only survive, but thrive downtown; to offer unique ways to integrate streetcars with parks and bikes and pedestrians to create complete streets; to provide green stormwater infrastructure to help clean our runoff before it hits the Mississippi … and this is just the beginning. In the meantime, relieve your own stress levels by finding your own favorite local forest bath. Your heart, and your insurance, will thank you!

David Motzenbecker is the director of Landscape Architecture for BKV Group. He is also currently president of the Minneapolis City Planning Commission.